Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress (2005): The Power of Literature

The main reason to see “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress,” which finally opens in the U.S., after playing in Europe and other countries two years ago, is not necessarily artistic.

Though not a bad film, the significance of “Balzac” is socio-historical and literary rather than cinematic. More than anything else, this touching film demonstrates the power and impact of classic literature in general and in times of political crises in particular.

Based on Dai Sihie’s international best-seller of the same title, this poignant tale is set in the early 1970s, during the later stages of China’s “Cultural Revolution.” Screenwriters Sijie and Nadine Perront tell the story of two city-bred teenage best friends, Luo (Kun Chen) and Ma (Ye Liu), who are sent to a backward mountainous region for Maoist re-education. The sons of “reactionary intellectuals,” the boys are required to perform arduous manual labor, along with locals, under the supervision of the zealous village headman.

The only book Ma and Luo bring to a rugged mountain re-education camp is a cookbook that is confiscated and burned by the illiterate village chief. But the resourceful adolescents manage to find diversions to counterpoint their boring and rigid doctrinaire life. They save Ma’s violin from destruction by claiming a Mozart lieder is actually a celebration of Chairman Mao. Because of their literacy, the headman sends them to a larger town to watch imported Albanian and North Korean communist melodramas, and then report back to the culture-starved locals. Relying on their own inventions, they embroider the stodgy plots, and unsurprisingly, the villagers are entranced.

During one of these trips, the two fall in love with the local beauty (Xun Zhou), the daughter of the region’s most renowned tailor. Not knowing her name, they refer to the girl only as “the Little Seamstress,” but she captivates them with her innocence and sensuality.

When they discover a hidden suitcase filled with banned books by Western writers, mostly French–Flaubert, Dumas and Balzac among them–they read these works to the Little Seamstress for hours in a secret meeting place. With thirst for knowledge of the world beyond, she comes to love all of these books, but in particular Balzac and his characters.

Indeed, though the manual labor takes its physical toll on them, their spirits are not defeated, and music and literature serve as their means of escape out of dreary reality and salvation of their souls.

In moments, “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” transforms its story about love for culture into something more lyrical. Returning to his native China, Dai Sijie, who has lived in France for more than 15 years, takes a semi autobiographical look at his years spent in a Maoist re-education camp, as the son of “bourgeois reactionary” parents.

Soaked with tenderness, the author shows a peculiar but understandable nostalgia for his youthful years, a time when life was unfolding in mysterious, unpredictable ways. Hence, we wonder to what extent the protagonists would have been exposed to and influenced by this universally recognized literature if the circumstances had been different.

The film is based on Dai Sijie’s best-selling novel, which has been translated into 25 languages, though not into Chinese.

SIJIE’s Biography

Born in 1954, in the Chinese province of Fujian, Dai Sijie was sent to Sichuan to be re-educated from 1971 to 1974. When he was freed, he went back to high school until 1976. After Mao’s death, Sijie took art-history courses at a Chinese university and then, having been awarded a scholarship, came to France in 1984. He entered IDHEC (the French Film School) and directed his first short film in China.

“Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” was adapted from his autobiographical first novel, published by Gallimard. A best-seller, the book sold 250,000 copies in France, won many awards and has been translated into 25 languages. Dai Sijie’s new novel, “Mr. Muo’s Travelling Couch,” was published in June 2005.

Filmography

2005 — Les filles du botaniste chinois
2002 — Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
1998 — The Eleventh Child
1994 — Le Mangeur de Lune
1989 — China, My Sorrow (Winner of the Jean Vigo award)